Symbolics, Inc. was a computer manufacturer headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and later in Concord, Massachusetts, with manufacturing facilities in Chatsworth, California (a suburban section of Los Angeles). Its first CEO, chairman, and founder was Russell Noftsker. Symbolics designed and manufactured a line of Lisp machines, single-user computers optimized to run the Lisp programming language. Symbolics also made significant advances in software technology, and offered one of the premier software development environments of the 1980s and 1990s, now sold commercially as Open Genera for Tru64 UNIX on the HP Alpha. The Lisp Machine was the first commercially available "workstation" (although that word had not yet been coined).
Symbolics was a spinoff from the MIT AI Lab, one of two companies to be founded by AI Lab staffers and associated hackers for the purpose of manufacturing Lisp machines. The other was Lisp Machines, Inc., although Symbolics attracted most of the hackers, and more funding.
Symbolics' initial product, the LM-2 (introduced in 1981), was a repackaged version of the MIT CADR Lisp machine design. The operating system and software development environment, over 500,000 lines, was written in Lisp from the microcode up, based on MIT's Lisp Machine Lisp.
The software bundle was later renamed ZetaLisp, to distinguish the Symbolics' product from other vendors who had also licensed the MIT software. Symbolics' Zmacs text editor, a variant of Emacs, was implemented in a text-processing package named "ZWEI", an acronym for "Zwei was Eine initially" — "Eine" being an acronym for "Eine Is Not Emacs" (both recursive acronyms and puns on the German words for "One" ("Eins", "Eine") and "Two" ("Zwei")).
The Lisp Machine system software was then copyrighted by MIT, and was licensed to Symbolics. Until 1981, they shared all the source code with MIT and kept it on an MIT server. According to a Symbolics employee, the reason for the change in policy was Richard Stallman's making changes with which they disagreed, such as removing Symbolics' copyright notices on Symbolics' produced enhancements and transferring the resulting enhancements to the other commercial licensees, and at one point leaving the software in a state where it would not compile. Richard Stallman's account claims Symbolics engaged in a business tactic in which it forced MIT to make all fixes and improvements to the Lisp Machine OS available only to it, and thereby choke off its competitor LMI, which at that time had insufficient resources to independently maintain or develop the OS and environment.
Symbolics felt that they no longer had sufficient control over their product. At that point, Symbolics began using their own copy of the software, located on their company servers — while Stallman says that Symbolics did that to prevent its Lisp improvements from flowing to Lisp Machines, Inc. From that base, Symbolics made extensive improvements to every part of the software, and continued to deliver almost all the source code to their customers (including MIT). However, the policy prohibited MIT staff from distributing the Symbolics version of the software to others. With the end of open collaboration came the end of the MIT hacker community. As a reaction to this, Stallman initiated the GNU project to make a new community. Eventually, Copyleft and the GNU General Public License would ensure that a hacker's software could remain free software. In this way Symbolics played a key, albeit adversarial, role in instigating the free software movement.